Auld Staney Breeks
Poised upon a plinth above the entrance to John Cowane’s Hospital, stands the statue of one of Stirling’s greatest benefactors. Known to locals as ‘Auld Staney-Breeks’ this fine figure was crafted in the likeness of the Hospital’s founder, Master John Cowane.
Baillie, Banker, Commissioner to the Scots Parliament and Dean of Guild, Cowane was a colourful character. Though a commoner, his wealth ensured that he had friends in high places. His home, the now ruinous Cowane’s House in St Mary’s Wynd, included a private entrance to the adjoining King’s Stables, and his friendship with James VI of Scotland certainly protected him from the wrath of the courts when it was discovered that he funded his more speculative business deals by hiring pirates to plunder booty from foreign ships. ‘Hostile take-overs’ were a little more literal in 17th-century Scotland.
As a member of the Guildry, Cowane was part of Stirling’s ruling elite. From 1130, when David I granted the Burgesses of Stirling the right to hold a weekly market, make their own laws and charge their own taxes (on the understanding that they paid a proportion of their profits directly to the Crown), the Merchants’ Guild had dominated the life of the Burgh. Stirling was strictly divided into Brothers – members of the Guildry who controlled two thirds of the Council and decided who could do business in the town – and Strangers, who were…everyone else!
One law for the rich and another for the poor…
On at least two occasions in Stirling, John was made to sit upon the Penance Stool before the doors of the Church of the Holy Rood, scorned by the congregation for seducing servant girls in the employ of other Merchants, and charged £6 Scots by the Kirk Session for each offence. The girls were also fined – then banished from the Burgh on pain of death! ‘Auld Staney-Breeks’, indeed.
Some hold that it was a guilty conscience which led Cowane to bequeath the bulk of his estate – 40,000 Scots Merks (around £2222 Sterling – a huge sum for that era) – to the Cowane Trust, to endow an almshouse for the ‘succour of 12 decayed Gildbrothers’. Not a hospital for the sick, but a place of hospitality for destitute Guildry.
Begun in 1637, it wasn’t completed until 1649: construction interrupted by two ‘visitations’ of the Plague. Occupied by English Roundheads in 1651 – ensuring Scotland’s loyalty to their cause at the barrel of a gun – it wouldn’t serve its intended purpose for another decade.
Local legend tells that Cowane’s spirit inhabits his statue on the stroke of midnight each Hogmanay, and that it leaps from its plinth to dance through the streets…in search of female company.
Old habits die hard!